Jarv develops a DEATH WISH

Death Wish Poster

Don’t panic people. Despite my unemployed status, I’ve not really got an actual Death Wish. Rather, I’ve decided that I need a new series and Bronson’s cottage industry of one man ultraviolence strikes me as the answer (mostly because of the third one, if I’m honest). Anyhow, here we’ll be reviewing all 5 Death Wish films, chronicling one man army Paul Kersey taking justice to the punks of New York and Los Angeles. First up, is seminal 1970’s exploitation “classic” Death Wish. Obviously.

Contains Creeps and Spoilers below. 

Meet liberal pacifist conscientious objector Paul Kersey. He’s a nice guy with a bleeding heart who spends his time working as an architect and enjoying holidays in Hawaii with his missus. Unfortunately for Paul (and even more unfortunately for his wife) he happens to live in New York, and his wife and daughter are assaulted by a group of “creeps” straight from the crime statistics that he disparages. His wife dies as a result of the assault, and his daughter enters a medically dubious catatonia (more on this in a minute). It’s fair to say that Paul doesn’t take this very well, and when a client in Arizona presents him with a gun, he decides to deliver some street justice to the punks Bronson style. Trying to stop him are the New York Police department, led by Ochoa, but, really, there’s no stopping the Kerse. So, shit happens, punks get wasted and then there’s a full-on stunner of an ending.

Punks, Creeps, Lowlifes. Take your pick

Punks, Creeps, Lowlifes. Take your pick

Death Wish is a film that defies reasonable analysis. It’s a cult classic for a reason, mostly because of Bronson in the lead, but there’s much to both like and dislike at the same time. The problem with it is that almost everything to dislike contributes some way to the success of the film. To start with, let’s quickly look at the acting. Bronson is, obviously, awesome. But he’s also clearly a man in his 50’s (and keep that in mind for how long the series has to go), and no matter how the director (hack Michael Winner) shows Bronson’s physique in the holiday scene at the beginning, there’s no real getting around the fact that this is basically an old dude indulging in some ultraviolence. Next up is Vincent Gardenia as Ochoa. In many ways, he’s better than Bronson, given that he’s channeling the great Walter Matthau performance from The Taking of Pelham 123 , but this isn’t a real surprise, as Winner’s a hack and hacks have a tendency towards outright theft (looking at you, again, Cokey). Nevertheless, his character provides the balance for Bronson’s increasingly insane central performance. The rest of the support is irrelevant to the film, other than this was a very early appearance of Jeff Goldblum as one of the creeps.

What Death Wish actually is, despite reputation, is a study of a crime victim losing his mind. Bronson’s Kersey starts out beating the shit out of a mugger with a sock full of loose change, but gradually steps over every single line on the way to eventually becoming a killing machine. The thing here is due entirely to how he perceives himself, and in this case the pivotal scene in the film isn’t the rape and beating (which isn’t very rapey anyway, but more on this in a moment, too). Rather, the key moment in the film is Kersey watching a “cowboy” performance while in Tucson. It’s evident from Bronson’s performance here that he clearly sees himself as one of the men in white hats, and it’s his job to run a load of no good varmits in black hats out of his town. This comes up over and over again throughout the film but is really hammered home at the end when a grievously wounded Kersey tells one of the Creeps to “Draw”, and when told by Ochoa to get out of town, Kersey asks “By Sundown?” with a massive amount of relish. The film plays with Western dialogue and convention all the way through, because, to put it simply, in Kersey’s head he’s the new Sherrif in town. Actually, Bronson shines depicting Kersey’s mental collapse- from the intensely uncomfortable scene where he smashes the sock full of quarters to the nervy (and demented) dinner with his son in law, through to the frankly fucking incredible last shot of the film, this is played with some real flair.

Bronson has a weird supernatural ability with a gun.

Bronson has a weird supernatural ability with a gun.

Talking about that last shot, it’s brilliant in so many ways. Kersey here has completely flipped out, and when he sees a group of creeps hassling a woman in the station in Chicago, the look on his face says that he’s now actively pleased to have entered into this because he’s here in the Windy City to clean town. It’s real relish, and a great cliffhanger to leave the film on- there’s no doubt that Kersey is going to carry on whacking punks, muggers and creeps in whatever city he’s in.

So, I originally said that Death Wish is based on a Western. It’s not, I was wrong. However, what it clearly is, if you think about it in modern terms, is a superhero origin film. This is what could have happened to Peter Parker. That sounds like I’m being facetious, but I’m genuinely not- we’re witnessing the genesis of “The Vigilante”, and the final shot of the film leaves us in absolutely no doubt at all as to what he’s going to continue to do with his free time.

Kersey knew he should have read his paper on the bog as per usual.

Kersey knew he should have read his paper on the bog as per usual.

Now, I’m afraid, it’s time to discuss rape in cinema again. Death Wish is an exploitation film, for sure, and given the period and subject matter these films tend to require a rape sequence of some description. What caught me by surprise, this time around, though, was how tame it is. I don’t think the punks actually do go through with the rape (although they clearly intend to). Instead, the most traumatic part of the home invasion is the beating handed out to Mrs. Kersey, while the weirdest is that Goldblum spray paints Carol’s ass. This is where Winner being a hack comes to the fore- as he’s trying to show the punks as reprehensible, so came up with the spray painting- except all that is is kind of weird, and a bit comical today. I’m not saying that I want it to be rapier, because I don’t, but the result is that Carol’s catatonia then becomes, well, bizarre. I’m sure it was a horrible event and whatnot, but catatonia as a result of getting her ass spray painted? Nah, you’ve lost me there.

Thematically, the result of this being the stimulus for Kersey’s rampage is also difficult. This is worth pointing out, but at no point in the film does Kersey even attempt to find the actual punks responsible for the crime. Instead, he’s seeking justice by proxy and simply wasting any punk that happens to attempt to come across him. If anything, he’s blatantly entrapping them, by intentionally flashing cash, walking around dangerous areas and so on. It’s really hard to say that justice was delivered in this film, because it quite clearly wasn’t and I bet the punks are still spray painting random women for kicks to this day.
Love this picture.

Love this picture.

Overall, Death Wish is a great film. Almost everything about it is golden- Winner’s (in his days as a director before becoming a food critic) never handled cinematography better than he does here (the contrast between the funeral and sun-drenched Tucson looks great), the score by Herbie Hancock is immense, the acting solid, the atmosphere suitably gritty, and it’s riddled with great lines (mostly from Bronson and helped out by his idiosyncratic delivery), and it’s a much loved and incredibly easy start to a new series. I’m going high with a whopping 3.5 Bronson’s delivering street justice out of 4, and I have to say I did quite enjoy rewatching a film I hadn’t seen in ages.
3
So, next time Bronson has moved to LA, and Winner’s going to try to tie up loose ends in a pretty crass manner.
Until then,
Jarv
Death-Wish-logo

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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

17 responses to “Jarv develops a DEATH WISH”

  1. Xiphos0311 says :

    coughcoughcoughCOMICBOOKORIGINcoughcoughcoughPUNISHERcoughcoughcough.

    Kersey certainly has a death wish firing a handgun while holding onto his wrist like that he’ll pull rounds all over the place.

    I saw a version of the gun fight at Old Tucson Studios as a kid. A metric shit ton of movies and TV shows dealing with the old west filmed there.

    • Jarv says :

      Yeah, they say that in the film as well.

      I did think “Punisher” as well, when I rewatched it- except he’s not got the military background- the film’s explicit that he was a CO.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        You can’t help but draw the PUNISHER comparisons with the location and time period and well the punishment dealt by Kersey.

      • Jarv says :

        The biggest difference for me is that Kersey’s family were knocked out by “creeps”, whereas The Punisher deals with Drug dealers specifically. Kersey in version 4 isn’t far off the Punisher.

      • Continentalop says :

        Remember Xi, there were a bunch of paperback vigilantes who popped up before the Punisher did. Like Mack Bolan – the Executioner.

        And didn’t the book Death Wish appear before the Punisher first appeared?

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        Yeah I know Conti i was just goofing around.

      • Continentalop says :

        Sorry Xi. My mistake.

    • Toadkillerdog says :

      Jarv,
      this is a great review!
      damn good job sir.
      Love this flick. I saw it again a few months ago, it had been over twenty five years since i last saw it. Damn i am old. I even remember the hubbub it caused when first released.
      Of course i did not see it for first time until we got cable in the early 80’s.
      I recall we had a brief discussion about whether this was the progenitor for vigilante flicks.

  2. Judge Droid says :

    I’ve never seen this. I think I’ve seen parts (or all) of DW5 but I don’t really remember it apart from wondering who left the door of the old folks home unlocked.

  3. tombando says :

    Oh its a winner, pun intended, being the guy here that lives a half hr from Bronson’s grave, I might have a different angle on this than others. He was a pain in the ass to be around in public. But the movie? Its great. I think Denzel is here as a mugger too. Definitely plenty of gold here for you to mine for us Jarv. I never Did see #5 save a couple minutes. Three sets the fun standard up rather high, actually.

    Oh and Vince Gardenia? Rocks.. this came out before Pelham 123, fyi. This was a july release, summer ’74, Pelham November. But you gotta like both.

  4. Continentalop says :

    Great review, Jarv. Much I want to comment and discuss regarding your review and this film, but it’ll have to wait until tomorrow.

  5. Just Pillow Talk says :

    Been ages since I saw this one, but I quite liked it. As for the others, I’ve only seen bits of them.

    Nice review Jarv.

  6. Continentalop says :

    So, I originally said that Death Wish is based on a Western. It’s not, I was wrong. However, what it clearly is, if you think about it in modern terms, is a superhero origin film. This is what could have happened to Peter Parker. That sounds like I’m being facetious, but I’m genuinely not- we’re witnessing the genesis of “The Vigilante”, and the final shot of the film leaves us in absolutely no doubt at all as to what he’s going to continue to do with his free time.

    I think the movie is both part Western and part superhero origin film (but in this case, maybe more Pulp Hero origin film, ala the Shadow, the Spider, the Phantom Detective, and Mack Bolan-the Executioner). The vigilante has long been a big part of the Western film, and the actual western history. The idea of a lone man reluctantly taking up guns to clean up a town is very much a western story.

    But, yeah, DW also resembles a comic book. And I would say he mostly resembles Batman and not Spider-Man, and not just because he doesn’t have powers and is a street hero. Paul Kersey origin is very much like Batman, a man who is a victim of crime and looses his family members and dedicates himself to fight crime. That’s what makes the fact he never finds Goldblum and the other guy, the actual criminals, so great – like Batman, who in the best depiction, never finds the guy who killed his parents, Kersey never meets the criminals who raped his daughter and killed his wife. He instead goes out to punish any criminal he encounters, imagining that maybe they are the culprits. In fact, if Kersey did know who he hurt his women folk and was able to get them, than what would be his motivation to keep going? Which, like you said, makes this very much an origin story.

    • Jarv says :

      I think it borrows a lot of themes from westerns (as do the sequels), but I don’t think it is an urban Western per se, which I originally thought.

      It’s a really, really fucked up origin story- you can tell from the breakdown with the sock of quarters that what we’re watching here is a man losing his mind at the end of his tether who literally no longer cares if he lives or dies, provided he can kill a few punks.

      I also agree that the fact that he’s killing any old creep rather than finding Goldblum and the merry band of ass painters is the most interesting thing about the movie.

      You’re right, Batman is nearer than Spiderman, because of the lack of powers, but I dismissed it in my head because, a) Kersey doesn’t have access to Bruce Wayne’s millions, b) He actually kills the punks,

  7. ThereWolf says :

    Yeh, great review, Jarvis. I haven’t seen DW1 since way back in the late 1970’s. It’s a solid film, dunno how Winner managed it – owes a lot to Bronson and the fact that audiences quite like to see an everyman dishing out the hurt to creeps for a change.

    Can’t remember if I’ve seen any of the other films in the series…

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